Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Creation myth

The only thing more lame than a disclaimer within a record review is one written after the fact. but i guess that's what this is...

see a while ago, i reviewed the record "Map, Monitor, Surge" by the Cleveland band Craw for the All Music Guide (link is here). actually, all of the Craw reviews on AMG are by me except the one of the self-titled record. i had mixed feelings about writing these pieces--as i do about reviewing records in general, but this is kind of an extreme case. on one hand, these records had no AMG reviews posted at the time--this was probably '02 or so--and i felt that it was important that people be able to find out about them if they wanted to. and i certainly felt like i was qualified to do it given that i had been listening to Craw obsessively for several years.

but i knew that saying all i wanted to say about this band in a series of AMG reviews was impossible. even sitting down to write a blog post on Craw tonight was daunting, because i knew that what is happening right now would happen, which is that i can't seem to tell just part of their story. i have to tell it all. and telling their story really means telling all this stuff about my teenage self and how this music touched me so deeply at that time that it basically determined the course of my life. even though a lot of the stuff i listen to sounds nothing like Craw, i feel like i'm always looking for that intensity in whatever i'm checking out and looking to put it forth whenever i'm playing.

all that digression aside, though, what i really meant to discuss here was how i felt like i had perhaps shortchanged Craw's last two records in my AMG reviews and how that was probably due to some weird feeling of personal betrayal.

ok, so i have to tell you about when i was in high school. i discovered Craw during my junior year after reading a review of their self-titled debut in a Kansas City metal zine called "Feh." the review said something like "i can't possibly describe this music but it's totally scary and amazing and the record is 69 minutes long and you should hide all sharp objects when you play it." i was totally intrigued and i tracked down the record--at fucking Best Buy of all places, which used to stock great indie-label stuff--and i was very confused by it at first.

but i kept spinning it and spinning it and very quickly i became completely obsessed with it. i was a metal and punk kid then, always looking for the next most intense thing i could find. can't remember if i was on to death metal at that point, but probably. anyway, the thing that fucked me up so bad re: Craw was that here was music that was as searingly intense as any metal has ever been but it was not dumb or cheesy or caricatured in any way. on the contrary, it was scarily intelligent--not just in the lyrics, which were awesomely poetic and evocative and creepy, but in the compositions. the music was so odd, jarring, unexpected, but also completely gorgeous. it was simply the most enveloping thing i'd ever heard.

i quickly bought up their second record, "Lost Nation Road," which had been released in the interim between when i read the review and bought the first CD. this one was even scarier. the songs had become so manic and so dynamic. there were saxophones and insanely proggy structures and terrifying whispery parts and just this overall sense of extreme cinematic drama but in such a subtle way. this is not like Tool or something, where it's like a sci-fi movie, like heightened; this is just gut-level strangeness. you're just as baffled as you are affected.

anyway, so one day i was in Recycled Sounds, my go-to KC indie store where i had found "Lost Nation," and i saw a flyer for an upcoming Craw show. i was completely freaked out. probably have never been as excited since. the flyer said that there would be an art opening at RS before the show for this artist named Derek Hess, who used to book Craw at this Cleveland club called the Euclid Tavern and did all of their flyers and T-shirts and some album art back then. [weirdly, he's become sort of famous for his metal flyers and album art. i think he did some art for Shadows Fall and he has this yearly tour called the StrHess Tour that he sponsors.]

so i took the flyer home and marked the date on the calendar and all that. but i was a bit disconcerted by the fact that it was a 21+ show. my friends and i had been shut out of a ton of shows b/c of age, but we'd always go anyway and try to meet the band and see if they could sneak us in. this rarely worked but led to a lot of fun stories (e.g., smoking weed with Clutch on their bus and then watching their show through the door of the venue). anyway, but i was determined not to get shut out of the Craw show, so i decided to try to call them in advance and see if there was anything they could do.

there was a number for their label, Choke Inc., on the inside of the "Lost Nation Road" CD, so i called it and explained to the label dude that i was this 17-year-old kid from Kansas City and that Craw was my favorite band, etc., and could he possibly help me gain admittance into this upcoming show. the guy was totally bowled over by this and said the best he could do was give me the number of one of the guys in the band.

so he gave me the number for Dave, one of the guitarists, and i called him and i was like, "Uh, hi. i'm Hank Shteamer and i'm this 17-year-old kid from Kansas City and i'm a huge fan of your band and your show in KC is 21+ and is there anything you can do to help get me in?" and of course he was laughing, but i could tell he sincerely wanted to help. so he told me that i should come to the art opening and then my friends and i could go with the band to the venue and the Craw guys would tell the people at the club that we were their roadies.

so me and my two buddies Chris and Jason, who were the only ones among my friends who i'd been able to convert into Craw fans at this point, show up at Recycled Sounds for the opening as directed by Dave. and i'm of course wearing my Craw shirt, and there's this group of scruffy dudes hanging out in the back of the store and i immediately recognize one of them b/c i had this promo pic of the band. this guy had been standing out in front in the pic, so i assumed he was the singer. and i said to him, "Are you McTighe?" the albums only listed the players' last names, so that was the best i could do. and the guy just started laughing, and he was like, "No, I'm Rockie, the guitarist."

and i was like, "Which one of these guys is Dave?" so Rockie waved Dave and the singer--it turned out his first name was Joe--over and he was like, "This is Hank." and they're both like, "Whoa, you're Hank Shteamer!" and they started laughing in disbelief. Dave had told them about my call and it had become sort of a band joke that this kid from KC had called like two months in advance about getting into their show. but they were totally nice and appreciative.

of course my friends and i were starstruck, but the drummer, Neil, was really cool to us and i think sort of related to how it was to be hanging out with your favorite band and trying not to look like idiots. i was just firing all these questions at him, like verifying lyrics and aksing who wrote what songs and all that sort of stuff and he was completely cool about it. he introduced me to Derek Hess, who had done the art for the Craw shirt i had on, and i got him to autograph it. still got that shirt at home...

anyway, so as planned, my friends and i drove over to the venue early, met the band and helped them carry their equipment in. Rockie just told the door guys that we were with them and that we wouldn't be drinking and so we got our hands X'd and just went on in.

it is unlikely that i will ever forget that show. it so completely lived up to and surpassed my ridiculously high teenage expectations. the band just utterly slayed, and the club was TINY and we were right there in front and we were literally the only people in there who had ever heard this band before and we were just completely freaking out.

the thing about Craw live that sent me over the edge was watching Joe McTighe perform. i have to tried to describe and re-enact his stage manner for years and have never felt like i've done it justice. he was a tall, weirdly handsome guy who had this chipped tooth and would always smile sort of smugly. and he he'd always wear this sort of Robin Hood cap, sometimes with a feather. when he sang, he'd hold the cap tight to his head with one hand and wrap the mike cord around the other and do these weird stabbing contortions with his upper body that never seemed to have any rhythmic relation to the music. often his movements were slow, almost tai chi-like. he'd just sort of crouch down and have these convulsions.

it was one of the most frightening and riveting things i've ever seen. i feel like so many performers go out of their way to convince you that they're "crazy" or "extreme" and he just *was* those things: completely natural and completely intense.

anyway, the band killed that night and they killed every other time i saw them, which was about seven other times. but the thing that i've been meaning to talk about this whole time was that when they came back the second time, Neil Chastain, the drummer who had been so cool to us, wasn't with them; he'd left and was replaced by this guy Will Scharf. when all the guys got out of the van at that second show and Neil wasn't with them, we were pretty bummed out b/c Neil was the only one we'd felt really comfortable hanging out with. [the Hess poster you see up top there was for this Craw tour, the first one with Will. it was with the KC band Glazed Baby and was known as the "You Guys Play Like a Bunch of Girls Tour." fun fact re: Glazed Baby is that one of their members, Joel Hamilton, now runs this studio in Wmsburg where my old band, Today (still operating under its latter-day name Bat Eats Plastic), recorded our first E.P. Joel also produced and drummed on the new Battle of Mice record, which a lot of people are pretty psyched on. also, not so coincidentally, my bandmate in Today was none other than Dave from Craw, the dude i had called up all those years ago about getting into the 21+ show. but that's another story...]

also, we weren't so psyched on Will's drumming when we first saw him. he didn't have Neil's awesome precision and he just didn't seem as connected to the material. granted, he'd just joined the band, but this was our favorite band and we didn't want any compromise.

over the years, Will really came into his own, both with Craw and with his other band Keelhaul, and turned into a ridiculously powerful and sophisticated math-metal demon. when he first recorded with Craw though, on a few singles and the way-aforementioned album "Map, Monitor, Surge," he was playing in this kind of jazzy, chaotic style that really changed Craw's sound. i guess to my ears, they sounded sloppier with Will.

so that record always sort of had this symbolic meaning for me, as the one where Neil left, and maybe that's the underlying reason why i gave it only three stars. there i said it; hope no one from AMG hunts me down now. [though people have issued record ratings for far pettier, lamer reasons; did you hear about the dude who dissed the Black Keys in the Voice only to have a bunch of people write in saying that he was an ex-friend of theirs who had it out for them? crazy shit...] of course, this is a hyperbolic conection to make: i obviously did feel that the music on "M, M, S" was inferior to the first two records. i guess i'm just trying to prove a point re: a) how totally, totally biased i was/am re: this band and b) how hard it is to be impartial/critical toward a band you truly love and probably 800 other points.

having said all that, i've been listening to "Map" recently, and i realize how wonderful it is. i always loved it, but you expect so much from your favorite band; you don't want anything to change. i wanted everything to stay how it was when i was 17 and being snuck into a Craw show pretending to be their roadie. that's way beyond a musical thing obviously; it was an amazingly formative time.

what's the point of all this blabbing? i guess i just proved my own point, that i can't talk about Craw without gushing, without telling the whole damn stupid story of how i bought their record because of a review in a KC metal zine, called them, met them at an art opening, had Derek Hess sign my T-shirt, got snuck into their show, had my life changed by said show, etc. etc. but it is such a perfect teenage story.

that's of that time, but the music is here and i love it. hail Craw and thank you so much. don't know what else to say, but this certainly won't be the last you'll hear of them here.

please, please, if you have even the slightest interest in aggressive and/or prog-oriented music, or really just anything really intense, emotional and intelligent, go listen to Craw. you'll find a link to MP3s of their ENTIRE CATALOG on their website. here's a five song primer:

1) "Sound of Every Promise" from "Lost Nation Road"
2) "Strongest Human Bond" from ditto
3) "Elliot" from "Craw"
4) "Rip and Read" from "Map, Monitor, Surge"
5) "Caught My Tell" from "Bodies for Strontium 90"

my fellow Craw die-hards, Ben and Tony, seem to prefer the later material, so they'd probably tell you to reverse the order of that list. but i still feel like the early stuff is superior. anyway, again, i implore you. my favorite band ever, straight up.


Levi Jacob Bailey said...

This was a fantastic post. I'm sure I don't have to tell you how lucky you are to have witnessed them live. Thanks so much for sharing your story.

Terry said...

Ditto! So many of your reflections on Craw match my suspicions; I never saw them live, but just hearing McTighe's vocals made me speculate that he might appear just as you describe him live. I also feel that they are an incredibly original entity that still have so much to offer posthumously; so much originality and so much feeling...there are a lot of people that would appreciate them over the bands that have been sustaining them thus far...